SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - The city of San Francisco has seen a dramatic spike in car break-ins over the past several months. Car thieves have not only made headlines for stealing credit cards and laptops, but also something much more serious—guns. Just this year, police say the number of car break-ins is up nearly 50 percent compared to last year.
KTVU went on an undercover sting with San Francisco Police Department October 15th to see just how badly the problem has gotten and what is being done to stop it.
Police said the stolen guns have been used in several high-profile crimes over the past year including the killings of Kathryn Steinle, a Canadian backpacker, and a Marin County hiker. Police said a Bureau of Land Management ranger's service pistol was stolen from his car in downtown San Francisco four days before a Mexican national and five-time deportee allegedly used it to shoot and kill Steinle on a San Francisco pier.
In October, police said a homeless trio wandering the San Francisco Bay Area used a handgun stolen from an unlocked car near Fisherman's Wharf to rob, shoot and kill Marin County hiker Steve Carter and Canadian tourist Audrey Carey in Golden Gate Park. What was once a bad car burglary problem has now become an epidemic and a danger to public safety.
"Anybody that breaks into a car is a criminal, right, just by definition,” said SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, “so anyone who breaks into a car and finds a firearm in that car is now an armed criminal."
According to SFPD, the break-in problem is the most prolific in Northern District, which encompasses Fisherman's Wharf and Alamo Square. Police said thieves target tourists because they typically stash credit cards, passports, cash, laptops and phones in their rental cars.
"Numbers have gone up significantly throughout the city,” according to Captain Greg McEachern at Northern Station. “Especially here in our district where we're up 75 percent for the year. We handle an average of 14 car break-ins a day."
In fact, while pulling into the parking lot at Northern Station to prepare for an undercover sting with SFPD, KTVU ran into a pair of tourists from Spain who had their rental car broken into hours before their flight home. Luckily, they still had their passports, but everything else was gone.
"By all of their items being taken, I think would sour them on ever wanting to come back to San Francisco," Captain McEachern said.
Chief Suhr has created a special burglary unit to address the car break-in epidemic. KTVU was able to ride along for the operation, which was set up on the back side of the Palace of Fine Arts. Police said that’s the hottest spot for car break-ins.
Within one hour, KTVU’s crew witnessed a man smash the back window of an SUV. It takes just seconds to snatch a suitcase and jump in his getaway car, which was being driven by someone else. The two speed off, but were quickly apprehended by the SFPD unit. Police said the thief was Aris Polite, 28, and his driver was Rickey Serrell, 34. According to SFPD, this was Serrell's sixth arrest for burglary in four years.
The victim was a math teacher from Arizona named Peter Dalibay, who was snapping pictures of the Palace of Fine Arts at the time of the burglary.
"It happened so fast. I was just gone a few minutes. This is actually my first time here [in San Francisco] and I enjoyed the sights around the city like, you know, the area, but this one actually makes me think twice now about my impression."
Police said Peter Dalibay was just one of 67 people in San Francisco whose cars get broken into every day.
It's a city-wide problem that's skyrocketed over the last few years. According to SFPD, there were 6,213 car burglaries from January through July of 2012. This year there were 14,187 -- a 128 percent increase.
"A lot of these guys are career criminals," according to Chief Suhr. "A lot of these auto burglaries involve gang members and either they have guns or when we execute search warrants, or what have you, we're finding guns."
Each year, 172,000 guns are stolen during burglaries of homes and cars nationwide, according to the Department of Justice.
Just last month San Francisco police arrested Sean Gibson, 24, whom they say is responsible for 22 auto burglaries. A search warrant of his home turned up two stolen guns and police want to know if they were used in any other crimes.
"We found out [car burglars] are doing crimes of opportunity,” said Chief Suhr. “They might do a robbery in the middle of while they're doing auto burglaries."
So what's keeping San Francisco from getting auto burglars off the streets? Chief Suhr said sentences are too lenient.
"They're still not getting any time. They're going straight to probation and then they're reoffending."
According to Suhr, the vast majority of first-time car burglars in San Francisco receive no jail time and three years felony probation. The Chief said he believes repeat offenders like Serrell have no incentive to stop smashing and grabbing.
But in neighboring San Mateo County, the penalties are much harsher.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told KTVU, "Down here in San Mateo County if you get caught for an auto burglary you're going to do jail time."
First-time offenders spend 90 days in jail, three years felony probation, according to Wagstaffe.
"We have many of the criminals who when they get caught say, 'Darn it! I didn't want to come into San Mateo County. What am I doing on Geneva Boulevard, on this side?'" Wagstaffe said.
Police Chief Greg Suhr said second-time offenders in San Francisco spend an average of less than 10 days in jail. In San Mateo County, it's six months to a year, according to Wagstaffe.
But San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said that’s not a fair comparison because San Francisco and San Mateo Counties are vastly different places.
"Our courts view this as a low priority, even our juries." Gascon said his office takes action on about 80 percent of the auto burglary cases it's given. According to police, that "action" is typically probation or minimal jail time.
Gascon argues, "The reality is that we have a problem that has increased tremendously in the last year, and there has not been a significant police action on it, about two percent of those cases result in an arrest. With the national average, it's somewhere between 14 and 16. We got a lot of work to do."
Chief Suhr insists his officers are cracking down. Captain McEachern said Northern station alone sent 177 cases to the DA's office for prosecution. But the DA’s office challenges those numbers, saying that because of duplicate incident numbers, some cases being discharged and other reasons, that number is really 78.
KTVU obtained the booking photos for 50 suspects who have been arrested in San Francisco for car burglary at least five times since 2012. And those are just the times they've been caught.
"These repeat guys they need to stay in jail," said Suhr. "If we can put them in jail and have them there for a while it sends a really clear message to the rest of them that we're not horsing around."
But Gascon said more jail time is not necessarily the solution, "There's evidence also that indicates that incarcerating people for low level offenses actually makes them worse. There's evidence that says even 24 hours in jail is enough sometimes to create a problem for rehabilitation for the rest of your life."
Gascon believes one of the biggest challenges is a disconnect between what police believe should happen to these burglars and what his office is able to do. He said oftentimes, the evidence is not there.
"There's a lot of sausage making behind the scene that most officers don't see and unfortunately, it's a matter of a resource allocation. But most police officers get very limited training in how the criminal justice system works. I understand why there are a lot of other priorities, but you have a system where you have one component of the criminal justice system is often completely disconnected with the other components,” said Gascon.
Prosecutors do not determine at the end of the day what a sentence is going to be, according to Gascon.
"We don't set the jail time,” said Gascon. When asked if his office is required to agree to jail time before a sentence is handed now, he said , "No. We don't have to agree to it. As a matter of fact, we often disagree. We put often on the record vigorously that we are disagreeing with what is going on. The judge doesn't need us to agree to anything, ok?"
Gascon also said that judges and juries are reflective of the values of the community in which they serve. In San Francisco, he said that means judges who get frustrated when their courts are tied up with low-level property crime cases.
"And if the people were so unhappy with the judges, they would not be reelecting them over and over and over again."
Gascon points to a car burglary case that was "tightly presented." 11 jurors agreed to convict the burglary suspect, he said, but one juror would not budge.
"At the end of the trial we talk to the juror and we said what did we miss? What should we have done differently to be successful in this case? And his response was I'm offended by the fact that you're taking five days from my work to be here to handle a case like this,” Gascon said. “When you live in a major urban center you should expect this to occur."
Victims of car burglary say the problem has been on a downward spiral for years and now it's become so bad that thugs will smash car windows and scrounge for loot, even when there's nothing inside to steal.
SFPD Inspector Ronan Shouldice has been with the department for 27 years, 20 of those on the crime scenes investigation unit.
"The incidence of repeat offenders that we're running into is huge. It seems to me that we are identifying the same players repeatedly, so what that tells me is that something is broken."
When Shouldice's own car and five others on his block in the Sunset District were broken into a few months ago, he took matters into this own hands, literally.
"Being in the business that I'm in, I happened to have my CSI gear with me and I fingerprinted some of the cars." He pulled a print. "There's only one way that those fingerprints could have been put on those windows. In this case, I got prints on one of the cars on the inside upper part of the window consistent with someone having lifted the window."
Shouldice said his team presented the evidence to the DA, along with the same prints from another rash of car break-ins nearby, but was initially told that the evidence wasn't strong enough.
While Gascon would not comment specifically on Shouldice's case, he did speak in general terms. "You can have somebody touch the particular car and walk away from it and not necessarily be involved."
Shouldice said that explanation is laughable and typical of his dealings with the DA.
"You can't convince me that every single case that CSI sends forward for a follow up investigation and then presents it to the DA's office can so easily be explained away,” he said. “Somewhere someone's dropping the ball or minimizing the evidence that we're presenting to them."
But Gascon argues, "When the police take fingerprints, we actually like it because it happens so rarely."
A property crime comparison per 1,000 residents shows the odds of being victimized are one in 17 in San Francisco, compared to one in 38 throughout the rest of the state, according to the President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, Mark Debbaudt.
But the car burglary problem is not just a San Francisco phenomenon. Property crime has skyrocketed in most parts of the state over the past year. Some blame the uptick in property crime to AB-109 or prison realignment, which released many low level offenders to relieve jail overcrowding. Others point to Prop 47, which was authored by Gascon, as the culprit. Prop 47 reduced many property crime felonies to misdemeanors, but 47 supporters point out that auto burglary remains a felony under the measure.
Chief Suhr said career criminals work the system, however, breaking up the elements of the auto burglary into separate misdemeanors. Breaking the window is considered vandalism or malicious mischief, entering the car after the window is broken is considered petty theft from an unlocked auto, and possessing stolen property under $950 is also a misdemeanor.
"Repeat offenders aren't taking advantage of the second chance,” said Suhr.
Still experts caution that it's still too early to tell and too difficult to attribute a particular change in law to a change in crime rates.
Gascon said the increase in thefts could be attributed to San Francisco's growing population.
"Our city is growing if you look at how many people were in the city in 2009 and how many people there are here in the city now, there's at least a couple hundred-thousand more people. There are more people coming into work every day. We're running out of space. There are more cars parked out there, there's a tremendous amount of wealth. We have a lot of mentally ill people on the street [and] we have gangs that are shifting from drug selling into car break-ins because the consequences are lower and because they can make more money."
When KTVU looked to San Francisco Superior Court for answers, the presiding judge in Serrell's case released the following statement: "Almost all of these cases resolve by plea agreement entered into between the district attorney and defense counsel. Very few, if any of these cases, actually go to trial."
"95 percent of the time, judges sign off on the agreement reached between the DA's office and defense counsel," said court spokesperson Ann Donlan. "The judges are not handed a rap sheet of a suspect's priors, they only make a decision based on the evidence before them at the time."
In court transcripts from Serrell's case the public defender asked for his client to get drug treatment rather than jail time but the judge doesn't appear to be swayed.
THE COURT: "What drug is a problem for you?"
THE DEFENDANT: Marijuana.
THE COURT: Why do you think marijuana is a problem for you?
THE DEFENDANT: Slows down my process of thinking and it's hard to excel.
THE COURT: So why don't you just stop smoking?
THE DEFENDANT: It's hard. I been smoking since I was 13 years old.
THE COURT: Okay. This is going back to Department 9. Barring something else, marijuana is not going to be a substantial substance abuse problem.
MR. HARRISON: Well, it interferes with his day-to-day and he's been in criminal --
THE COURT: It does.
MR. HARRISON: He's a very heavy user and he's trying to get help to eliminate that. He can go back to Department 9 and spend some time in jail and then get out and have the same problem.
THE COURT: That's his choice because he can stop smoking if he wanted to. Very few people if that isn't the case.
MR. HARRISON: I think that's absolutely not the case. I know this court has been in Drug Court for a long time. Perhaps, I have a different opinion. But marijuana may not be physically addicting, but it's incredibly addicting in terms of being able to stop.
THE COURT: I'm not buying it.
At no point does the DA object on record to Serrell going into the drug program. Although the DA'S office said it rigorously fought for jail time in judge's chambers. Serrell is due back in court November 16 after his drug assessment has been completed. Then the judge will decide whether he serves time, or heads to a drug program.
Gascon said his office takes the problem seriously. He has assigned one prosecutor solely to car burglaries. Although KTVU has learned that that prosecutor resigned October 29 and the position is currently vacant, San Francisco District Attorney spokesperson Alex Bastian said other assistant DAs are handling the overflow until the position can once again be filled.
Police warn that car burglars can strike at any time, but most often it happens early morning or late afternoon. They call it "BIPP-ing" or "breaking into people's property." They often buy spark plugs for a dollar, break off the ceramic part with a hammer and then tie a chunk of the ceramic to a string and hit the window with it. Many of them make the rounds across the city every day, making a big loop from the Palace of Fine Arts and the Embarcadero to Twin Peaks and the Cliff House. Police remind people to not leave valuables in their cars, but if you must, lock it in the trunk.
"The level of negligence goes across the board. It requires a community be more thoughtful about what they leave in our cars," said Gascon. "It requires the police to be more attentive to their work, and it requires prosecutors and everybody down the line to do their work as well."
Inspector Shouldice understands citizens' frustration. After all, he's been a victim himself. Chief Suhr said he’s been a victim too as well as his wife. Suhr said he understands that San Franciscans are frustrated and people need relief.
Shouldice is trying to be optimistic, but he questions if anything will really change.
"Supposedly we're meant to work hand in hand, to make things better for the people who live in this city and that's not happening.”